Sunday, July 17, 2011

Politics of Marginalised can help building stronger Human Rights Institutions (HRIs) in India


By Dr Mohanlal Panda, Advisor, People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR)*

Majority of 1.21 billion plus population in India have been drawn immensely, through different mediums to politics, music/film, and cricket.  Among the three, politics takes a centrestage and captures mind space affecting our day-to-day lives.  Politics plays a significant role in the lives of the people, ultimately deciding cost of living, price of drugs, daily wages, sensex, and stock market. Though being a signatory to Millennium Development Goals (MDG), crucial for addressing poverty and exclusion, India has yet to achieve it, which reflects the intention and direction of Indian politics. There is growing realisation among the majority of the population that state is using democratic institutions to legitimise its undemocratic decision- making process, reason being its failure to communicate with its citizens.

The onslaught of neo-liberal economic policies, which pampers corporates and pauperise the masses or policies that destroy jobs and livelihood and displace people at gunpoint, has generated two new trends in Indian politics. First, it has generated three types of parallel democratic confrontations. These are, (1) Mind game between the broken people and forces implementing neo liberal policies,(2) Religious fanatics are confronted by the liberal elements within their religion, and (3) section of upper caste joining dalits to dismantle upper caste hegemony.  Second, in the wake of wide spread and increasingly documented cases of human rights violation, interest in reconciliation, as apolitical, juridical, and psychological construct is growing(Torture, Page. 72, Vol.21, No.2, 2011). While the former has immensely influenced the political trends in several parts of the country, the later has contributed in strengthening rule of law.  

 These trends in politics have not only affected the political parties, bureaucracy but also civil society groups and media. Intra organisational decision making process is under stress due to waves of democratisation of information demanding more transparency. All are in the line of fire due to lack of accountability and deficit of legitimacy for representing certain view. Pressure is building up on civil society groups to stand up to be counted for representing a democratic structure and implementing good practices like social audit in the organisations. The country is heading towards a politics that encourages participation to change and demonstrated will for initiating new age state craft.  

Impact of 'live' telecast or broadcast has unnerved the dictators. In the one hand, it has greatly restricted the space and impact of manipulating politics through perception based information, on the other hand it provided more space for the growing agitation, people's uprising, and dissent for protection of human rights. The arrival of information technology has strengthened the debate in favour of direct democracy. It has helped in questioning the representative character of politics and institutions. It exposed the design of the minority to keep the majority out of the process of participatory democracy in order to perpetuate their culture of impunity. Empowerment of majority is an evil dream for this section be they in politics, government or in civil society. The media has played an important role in breaking the silence of the majority marginalized population who have started questioning the right of this few self appointed leaders pretending to represent the majority and dare to negotiate for their future. These victims of the social system for centuries wish to ask their own question, and now demanding direct accountability from the state. Their politics has started establishing a culture where justice is not for the privileged few.    

The effectiveness of human rights institutions depends on its communication with the victims, people and organizations who work for victims.  The recent campaign by a section of the civil society groups to down grade the premier human rights institutions like NHRC has surprised many people in this country. One respects and accepts that this section in their wisdom concluded that NHRC has not delivered as per its mandate and up to their expectation. At the same time, some other sections which has benefited from the interventions of that institution believe that reform, not downgrading or shaming a national institution is good for victims of this country. These sections, representing the majority of the disenfranchised people certainly believe that NHRC, a quasi judicial body has taken suo-motto action on several occasions to provide relief to the victims who live in oblivion and for whom no one organizes press conferences. These majority sections cannot afford the expenses of cases that moves in an unlimited time frame in the court, thus prefer NHRC and other HRIs for relief. Agree, HRIs have its own limitations but they have their strength too. How many HRIs in the world, like NHRC, have opened their window to talk to their officers in the middle of the night to save the life of human rights defenders? This decision of NHRC should be welcomed and efforts should be made to push for more such decision through constructive criticism and public advocacy initiatives.

 Limited effectiveness of NHRC and other HRIs, partly, remains in their mandate. What can NHRC do when the victims in its desperation to get relief, rightly so, appeals both to NHRC and the court. On several occasions, NGOs lose their cases in the lower court and then make appeal to the NHRC for relief showing the victim/s as human rights defenders. How can NHRC influence the already established investigating process, which the court also follows, for lakhs of cases it handles every year and at the same time not being accused of delaying in providing relief ? While some of the answers lie in an effective State Human Rights Commissions (SHRC), the fact remains that the institutions and its functioning are designed to keep the majority out of the net of beneficiaries. A pro people reform will harm the interest of the opportunists.  

SHRC is undoubtedly a great idea to address human rights issues at the state level. But its functioning is harmed by two important problems, one, in majority of the states it is preoccupied with the unwritten responsibilities of shielding the present political dispensation, two, limited budget and lack of infrastructure affect its functioning. Looking from the point of financial viability, it is difficult to imagine SHRCs for small states. The state of District Human rights Courts are no different. Critics compare these courts with District Consumer Court where the lawyer, accused and the court connive to minimize penalty of the accused leaving the victims in lurch. A way out for some of these problems could be found in establishment of Regional Human Rights Commissions (RHCS) where appointments are done from an all India pool giving it a national profile. These RHCSs should be accountable to NHRC. Courts can also help in strengthening the HRIs by asking the victims whether any of the HRIs were approached for the same case and what is the status. While this will put immense pressure on the HRIs to remain on toes, the state will also realize its obligation in strengthening the HRIs.  

 Absence of victim centric politics in India has let down the HRIs, stalled legal and police reforms and increased threat of Human Rights Defenders across the country. The causes of marginalization of victims have never been in the political agenda of any party. No parliamentarian has showed concern to find out why for example, the report of The National Commission for Minorities were not tabled and discussed in the Parliament is a proof of policy makers concerns for the victims.  How long can the poor and vulnerable sit on the fence between life and death and admonish their fate for living in the margins of the society. No amount of investment on their empowerment will recover the cost of sense of their vulnerability, suffering, and helplessness. It is time to PARTICIPATE to CHANGE.


*PVCHR is a Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India, based Human Rights Organisation

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